After working on over 500 investment projects and helping our clients raise over $540M in funding, we’ve seen all sorts of pitch deck mistakes. We’ve received decks with flimsy business models, hideous designs, and financials that make no sense, as well as decks lacking basic information about the market or a central narrative on why the business, well, exists. Before reaching us, these decks travel from inbox to inbox for many months, failing to get any VC attention or feedback to implement.
We’ve analyzed them all and put together a list of the most problematic pitch deck mistakes, advice on how to fix them, and some winning pitch deck examples. Together, they will help you skyrocket your investor outreach response rate and boost your chances of closing early-stage rounds.
Top pitch deck mistakes you should avoid
The reality of the industry is that investors respond to only ~10% of decks and invest in <1%. If you want your deck to be in this 10% and to secure funds in times of recession, you really must put your best foot forward.
However, it’s important that you don’t overthink it too much. Even the famous Airbnb pitch deck, frequently used as a reference for entrepreneurs worldwide, was rejected at some point. At the end of the day, it’s all about increasing your chances.
Avoiding the following common pitch deck mistakes will certainly help.
1. Lack of catchy opening & coherent narrative
A massive proportion of our time is spent making business stories more attractive and coherent. Usually, this means adding flavor to wishy-washy openings, fixing broken storylines, and weaving in the core idea to hold the story together.
To be successful, your story absolutely must do two things:
- It must grip investors within the first few seconds. If it doesn’t, there’s a high chance investors won’t be bothered to read the rest.
- It must have a coherent, attractive, and exciting investor narrative.
We had a client who came to us complaining that his deck “can’t seem to raise a penny.” Upon inspecting the deck, we uncovered the problem. While our predecessor had done an excellent job of including a multitude of slides on market research, the deck ultimately lacked a fundamental business narrative and captivating storytelling. After we filled the gaps in the narrative and gave the story some flair, the client was able to raise funds within a couple of months.
Throwing a bunch of numbers, graphs, and charts at investors and expecting them to be impressed is a big investor pitch deck mistake. If the story is tired, scattered, and requires the reader to connect all the dots, it might not get traction – even if the separate slides are packed with valuable data.
How to fix: after your slides are ready, look at your presentation as a singular, inseparable composition. Read the whole thing from start to finish, asking the following questions:
- Is my opening gripping enough to make them want to continue reading?
- Does the story make sense?
- Does the narrative have a consistent flow?
- Is the storyline memorable? Does it elicit emotion?
Fixing your story will be much easier when you zoom out and try to look at the deck with VCs’ eyes.
2. Information overdose
One of the far-too-common mistakes made by startups’ pitch decks involves founders diving head-first into irrelevant technicalities and product features, unintentionally hiding information that is more important for investors.
Long, rambling presentations have slim chances of ever getting read and only demonstrate your lack of focus and your inability to prioritize information. If you think investors will eagerly read through every ten-point font word in your 55-slide presentation, we’re here to disappoint you. In reality, they skim through their inbound, spending on average three minutes and 44 seconds reading each deck and 20 minutes listening to your presentation.
How to fix: one of the proven pitch deck best practices is to stick exclusively to what investors want to see instead of including what you want to say. You can easily strip away all the fluff by focusing on the necessary sections:
- The problem/opportunity
- Value proposition
- Market size & potential
- Team background
- Strategy & vision
- Competition & long-term market positioning
- Financial projections & the ask
As for the number of slides, that will depend on your stage. For pre-seed and Series A rounds, you can stick to Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule: 10 slides, a 20-minute speech, and a pitch deck font size minimum of 30 points. For Series B rounds and beyond, your number of slides will grow.
3. Lack of vision & strategy
While the good old “Where do you see yourself in five years?” has become a hallmark of ineffective HR tactics, as a startup founder, you absolutely must know the answer.
Simply put, you should be able to answer this question with a one-sentence summary. Essentially, you need a tagline that captures your ultimate 5-to-10-year destination in a simple yet meaningful manner.
All investors want to know your ultimate destination and how you plan to get there. Yet, it’s mind-boggling how many startups don’t know where they’re heading, don’t communicate it in their pitch decks, or get it wrong.
How to fix: to come up with your vision statement, start by answering these questions:
- How will our company stand out in the industry?
- What will our brand be recognized for?
- What kind of growth will we achieve?
- Will we become a leader in a niche?
- What markets will we conquer?
If you’re struggling to define your vision, read our article on vision and mission statements.
As for the strategy, a high-level version that includes the timeline, milestones, channels, and key growth drivers is more than enough for the early rounds.
4. Not understanding your market & why now
If you know anything about venture capitalists, you know that they don’t just invest in good people or cool ideas – they invest in markets. Betting on an unproven market segment is something VCs avoid.
When investors look at your deck, they expect to see why you chose this market and why you want to enter it now. Most of the decks we come across don’t include these answers.
We get it. Calculating the infamous trifecta – TAM, SAM, and SOM – and analyzing market trends can seem dreadful. But you can’t expect investors to do the legwork for you.
You must show your numbers and convince investors that the market conditions are perfect at the moment, as timing is everything. Without this incentive, investors will always choose more urgent projects over yours.
How to fix: when it comes to calculating your market size, there’s no magic pill. You have to roll up your sleeves and dig into the numbers. No one expects faultless precision, so don’t sweat it too much. We suggest using the bottom-up approach, which you can learn more about in our article on the TAM, SAM, and SOM model.
As for composing the “Why now?” slide, answering these questions will help:
- What opportunities provided by the current macroeconomic environment do you want to tap into?
- What general market trends dictate your business’s trajectory?
- What are the specific benefits of starting now?
5. Failing to demonstrate traction (even if you think you don’t have any)
This is one of the most common pitch deck mistakes. Traction is essential because it can fast-track your path to the negotiations stage, even if everything else in your pitch isn’t that impressive. Why? Because nothing beats results when it comes to showing your ability to execute.
Traction clearly communicates to investors, Whatever they’re doing is working. On the other hand, lack of traction sends a message that investors need to babysit you if they hope to squeeze out any tangible results.
How to fix: there are many ways to show early traction, even if you think you have none. Have you built an MVP? Mention it and show the product development roadmap. Assembled a world-class advisory board? Show their faces, names, titles, and credentials. Have X interested customers on a waitlist? Say it. The same goes for built partnerships, acquired licenses, traffic, early customer feedback, and a variety of other helpful information. Don’t be shy. Show every drop of traction you have.
6. Flimsy business model
When investors look through your slides, they expect to find a clear-cut plan on how you will make money. It doesn’t have to be spotless or guarantee profitability early on, but it must exist. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Some startups still suffer from the “capital investment heyday syndrome” of 2018-2019, assuming that the bottomless VC pockets can tolerate the lack of a proper revenue plan as long as they’re growing.
Another mistake we often fix in early-stage decks is the “over-diversification” of revenue streams. Planning for five or six revenue streams won’t make you more money when you’re just starting. In reality, it just distracts you from what actually can work.
How to fix:
- Create a basic outline of your business model that includes pricing, who will be paying for the service, and options for cross-selling and upselling.
- Focus on one or two main revenue streams; you can add new ones later.
- Show the possibilities for your future revenue, along with your reasoning for them. Try out multiple business models to see what might work best in your case.
7. Poor competition slides / market positioning
Every startup has competitors. Even if you create an entirely new category, there is always an alternative that already exists on the market. When Henry Ford created his first mass-produced car, his competitors were horses, while Steve Jobs’ iPad competed with smartphones and laptops.
If your idea is even slightly less revolutionary, prepare to be creative to stand out among a bunch of sameish solutions. That’s why not including your competition is a huge pitch deck mistake.
Focusing on insignificant competitors instead of prominent market leaders is another cheeky move some founders try to pull off to look better in investors’ eyes. While it’s not a bad tactic per se, you should be able to explain why you chose these specific competitors; otherwise, it doesn’t look good.
How to fix: use the competition slide to demonstrate that you know who you’re up against and how to overtake them. Don’t just compare the features, as your competitors can always implement the same features in time. Instead, use this to present your competitive moat and strategic positioning. You can map your competitive landscape using a table, graph, or another form of visual communication.
8. Lackluster team slide
Many startups with which we have worked seriously underestimated the value of the team slide, which obviously didn’t help them get it right. Investors, in the meantime, spend over 15% of their total reading time on this slide, trying to figure out whether they can trust these people with $2/20/200M to implement the idea.
Most startups don’t aid investors in answering this question. They either cram their whole company into the deck, list their entire advisory board without mentioning the executive team, or just mention the names and titles of the team without providing any valuable context that answers the “why them” question.
This oversight is a big investor pitch deck mistake. The approaches don’t help this slide accomplish anything it should (i.e., demonstrating your team’s experience, various skills, skin in the game, and other things that signal a good team/market fit).
How to fix: before composing your team slide, ask yourself:
- Who are our founders? Who are our key team members who will steer this ship?
- Why these people? What accomplishments and experience make them a good fit for this startup?
Answering these questions will help you choose what faces to put on the slide and what to say about them to best show your team’s credibility, skills, and ability to execute. After all, the point of the slide is to convince investors that you have the best superheroes to solve the tasks at hand.
9. Unclear funding ask
Ironically, the crux of the whole investor pitch – the funding ask – often does not receive the care it needs. Some founders find it hard to right-size a funding round, so they settle on a random sum they think is enough to stay afloat and fail to provide investors with any context for the sum, either. As a result, the amount ends up being far above or beyond what it should be and doesn’t explain what it will achieve.
Other founders take the opposite approach, describing the milestones but shying away from specifying the sum. This leaves investors guessing as to whether you know how much money you need and how you’ll use it to achieve your milestones.
How to fix: to put together a funding ask slide that makes financial sense and instills confidence in your judgment, you need to do two things:
- Understand your milestones.
- Calculate how much you need to get there. Establishing how much cash you need for the first 18-24 months (aka your cash burn rate) will be a good start and requires knowing your CAPEX, OPEX, and working capital.
Bonus mistake: pitching the wrong investor
While this is not a pitch deck mistake per se, it is a widespread pitching strategy blunder that can make all your work on your pitch irrelevant. In fundraising, like in marketing, it’s vital to know your audience, their needs, and expectations so that you can tailor your message accordingly. Understanding your audience guarantees you’re
pitching preaching to the right choir every time your deck lands in a VC’s inbox.
Before sending your pitch deck to a VC firm, go to their website to answer the following questions:
- What types of businesses/industries do they usually fund?
- Do they focus on a specific stage?
- Do they have a history of funding businesses similar to yours?
These answers will help you rule out firms that don’t invest in projects like yours, saving time for both parties.
For those who passed this stage and landed a scheduled pitch, we suggest digging even deeper into the firm, as that will help you shape your story in the way that works for the particular investor.
What should you do next?
Seeing all these pitch deck mistakes might feel overwhelming. But, ultimately, there are just three things your deck must achieve:
1) Get investors’ attention.
2) Tell your business story in the most compelling way.
3) Convince investors that your business can make them money.
When you look at it from this perspective, it’s easier to spot anything that doesn’t serve this goal and fix it. Sometimes, all your pitch deck needs are some minor tweaks to turn the tables.
If your pitch repeatedly fails to get a response or make it to the negotiation stage, try putting yourself in a VC’s shoes and look at your pitch with their eyes.
Or, just contact our team, and we will help your deck to get through the VC door and amp up your conversions!